- Historic Sites
The American Heritage
A ranking of the forty wealthiest Americans of all time (Surprise: Only three of them are alive today)
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
Patriots confiscated all the property belonging to his Loyalist family during the American Revolution, and perhaps that goaded him to set out to make his millions in land trade. Starting out in law, he traded his very first fee—two secondhand copper stills—for thirty-three acres of land later worth $2 million. He then bought his boss’s cow pasture for $5,000; its worth grew to $1.5 million under his ownership. His real estate deals brought him great wealth, but he carved a more lasting mark as a leader in a far less lucrative field, horticulture. He introduced new types of strawberry and black raspberry to America, and his experiments greatly boosted this nation’s fruit production.
PHILIP DANFORTH ARMOUR
Returning home from the gold rush at twenty-four with several thousand dollars in his pocket, he turned to meatpacking, and near the end of the Civil War he found a way to turn meat into gold, selling pork futures at forty dollars a barrel and then buying the pork for eighteen dollars after the Confederacy collapsed. With the nearly two-million-dollar profit that resulted, he built Armour & Company. He was one of the first to bring hogs to Chicago for slaughter at his own plant, and he cut waste by using leftovers to make glue, soap, and fertilizer. Hurt by the 189899 meat scandals that inspired Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle , he gave away perhaps half his fortune.
JAMES C. FLOOD
He went to California and became one of the few forty-niners who actually made their fortunes in gold. Then he went on to Nevada, where as one of a foursome (other members: James G. Fair [No. 16], John Mackay, and William O’Brien) he operated three thousand feet of the rich Comstock Lode and co-owned the Consolidated Virginia and California mines; they doled out a hundred million dollars to stockholders between 1874 and 1879. He and James Fair ran the Bank of Nevada and owned Virginia City’s sawmills. They once dared a New York Tribune correspondent to ride a boat with them down a breakneck mile-long log flume, built to carry lumber. “I would not make the trip again for the whole Consolidated Virginia Mine,” Flood remarked afterward.
A quiet, reasonable man, he does not jump out of the history books as do his partners in the Central Pacific Railroad, but as its treasurer, working behind the scenes, he provided the levelheaded business sense that made the other three extremely rich: Two are on this list; the other, Charles Crocker, missed by only two places. Lured to California by gold, he soon figured he could make more money supplying miners and opened an iron and hardware store with Collis Huntington (No. 28). It was in the apartment over that store that an engineer persuaded the soon-to-be Big Four to finance what would become the Central Pacific.
He had been practicing law for more than twenty years when Isaac Singer offered him a share in his thriving sewing-machine business in return for representation in a patent-infringement suit. Clark disapproved of Singer’s sexual escapades and egotism but recognized the chance to earn a fortune. He defended the company tenaciously, eventually organizing the first American patent pool for it. He pioneered the idea of installment buying, and he used nationwide demonstrations to persuade the public that the machine was easy to use. When Singer died in 1875, Clark took over as president and ran the company for the rest of his life.
When he swung at the golden spike at the completion of the transcontinental railway on May 10, 1869, he was crowning a venture that had taken eight years, surviving sixty-foot snowdrifts, dangerously rough terrain, and deserting workers. He missed- perhaps the only time in his life he failed to strike gold. He had gone to California in 1852 after a fire destroyed his Wisconsin law office; he sold miners’ supplies and raked in a fortune. Elected governor of California in 1861, he approved four public grants totaling well over a million dollars for the transcontinental line, lining his own pockets since he was already president of the Central Pacific. When his fifteen-year-old son died in 1884, he founded California’s great Leland Stanford, Jr., University in tribute.
Social norms being what they were, the list’s only woman was called the Witch of Wall Street in her day, but she contributed to that reputation too. After inheriting $7.5 million at the age of thirty and making the most of several bull markets—largely in railroads and real estate—she still wore dowdy, inexpensive clothes and once spent hours searching for a two-cent stamp she had dropped. Raised in a New Bedford Quaker family, she learned business on the wharves of her grandfather’s shipping firm. “There is no great secret in fortune making,” she once said. “All you have to do is buy cheap and sell dear, act with thrift and shrewdness and be persistent.”
JAMES J. HILL